'60s Packers struggle against their final foe

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These are the guys I watched in my youth. All of a sudden, I'm feeling old, too.

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'60s Packers struggle against their final foe

Once powerful champions losing a goal-line stand against Father Time

By Gary D'Amato of the Journal Sentinel staff



Dec. 03, 2014 12:00 a.m.

Like most of us, Jerry Kramer sometimes forgets where he put his cellphone. He misplaces his car keys. He runs into an old acquaintance and draws a blank on the name.





Minor memory lapses are the norm for people of all ages, researchers say.

Each time it happens to the 78-year-old Kramer, however, a chill goes down his spine.

"I go, 'Is this it?'" he says. "'Is it here?'"

Alzheimer's disease runs in his family. His mother had it. An uncle. His brother.

It runs in his other family, too. Nobody likes to talk about it, but many members of the 1960s Green Bay Packers teams are struggling with various stages of dementia.

Willie Wood lives with the ever-thickening fog of Alzheimer's in an assisted living facility in Washington, D.C. Bob Skoronski candidly admits he is having "memory problems." Teammates acknowledge that Bart Starr, recovering from a pair of strokes and a heart attack, is dealing with cognitive issues. They whisper that Paul Hornung has become forgetful, too.

"Doug Hart has it now," says Kramer, Vince Lombardi's exceptional right guard and still a loquacious spokesman for those iconic Packers teams. "He's been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's. And goddamnit. We used to fish and hunt and golf. We had some great times. It's just painful to see it coming.

"If I get a chance to talk to the big fella upstairs I'm going to tell him, 'This is a (expletive) way to run things.'"

They were the Glory Years Packers, perhaps the greatest collection of talent in football history. They won five National Football League titles in a seven-year span, the first two Super Bowls, the hearts of millions of fans. They were larger-than-life figures, athletes who transcended a game and an era.

Their names would become synonymous with excellence. Starr. Hornung. Willie Davis. Forrest Gregg. Jim Taylor. Ray Nitschke.

"We have 11 players in the Hall of Fame," says Bob Long, a Packers receiver from 1964 to '67. "That's half the starting team."

Fifty years later, however, those towering pillars of strength, those nimble and skilled players who graced gridirons past, are ... old men. They limp on bad knees and hips, take medications for bad hearts and shudder with dread when they walk into a room and momentarily forget why they're there.

"All this stuff, it's very discouraging," says Long, who suffered a debilitating stroke in the 1990s that affected his speech and balance. "It's kind of disheartening watching guys get sick, and you can't do a thing about it."

In our mind's eye, we see the Packers sweep, that perfect combination of power and precision. We see the iconic black and white photos of purpose-driven men whose lives intersected in the perfect place, at the perfect time. That's how we want to remember them. Frozen in time.

Forever young. Forever strong. Forever invincible.

But at some point, while we weren't paying attention, while we were watching Don Majkowski and then Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers, the men who built Titletown grew old and stooped and gray. The Glory Years became the Golden Years.

"These players are held on such a high pedestal as legends," says Rick Moncher, a sports memorabilia dealer who specializes in 1960s-era Packers and has exclusive signing rights with Starr and Taylor. "They're thought of so highly that people forget they are mere mortals.

"They may have won five championships, but Father Time is undefeated."

Of the 37 men who played in at least one game on Lombardi's first team in 1959, 19 — more than half — are dead. The youngest living member of that team is 77 and the average age is 79.8.

Of the 43 men who played on Lombardi's last team in 1967, 14 are dead (33%). The average age of those still alive is 72.2.

"I was a rookie in 1964 but most of the guys who played on those first two Super Bowl teams came to the Packers in '56, '57 and '58," Long says. "I am 72 now, so most of those great players are turning 80.

"And once you get to 80, all bets are off."

Some died young. Emlen Tunnell in 1975. Henry Jordan in 1977. Travis Williams in 1991. Ron Kostelnik in 1993. Nitschke, Elijah Pitts and Lionel Aldridge, all in 1998. Max McGee died in 2007.

Just in the last four years, Packer Nation has lost Ron Kramer, Jim Temp, Jesse Whittenton, Gale Gillingham, Claudis James, Lew Carpenter, Joe Francis and Norm Masters.

"Our numbers," says Zeke Bratkowski, "are diminishing."

In 2016, the NFL will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl I. Some of the Packers have heard rumors that the league plans to honor the '66 team in some fashion, perhaps by flying the players — and the widows of those who have died — to San Francisco for a reunion.

"It's going to be interesting," Long says, "to see how many players from our Super Bowl I team will still be alive."
 
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